Hampshire College poised to install large solar array to supply all its electricity

AMHERST — One of the largest solar arrays on any college campus on the East Coast is on track to be built this spring at Hampshire College, with the campus poised to become the first in the United States to have all its electricity needs met by the 4-megawatt project, according to college officials.

The 15,000 ground-mounted solar panels being installed on 19 acres of Hampshire’s campus by solar developer SolarCity also comes with a financial benefit for the town, as a payment-in-lieu-of taxes deal will net Amherst more than $500,000 over the next 20 years.

An agreement for this payment to Amherst related to the property improvements was signed this month by interim Town Manager David Ziomek and representatives of SolarCity, of San Mateo, California.

“This encourages green energy and revenue for the town,” Ziomek said.

The deal also lays the groundwork for other potential solar projects on land owned by nonprofits and tax-exempt organizations in Amherst, including developments that might occur on the Amherst College campus. In November, Town Meeting approved an article allowing such agreements, up to 30 years long, to be signed by the town manager.

Finance Director Sanford “Sandy” Pooler said the anticipated revenues from the solar project include $21,000 in the first year, which will increase annually by 2½ percent. Over the life of the deal, Pooler estimates the town will collect around $540,000.

The 4-megawatt system will be financed, built and operated by SolarCity and can deliver up to 6.4 million kilowatt hours per year. That’s enough for Hampshire College, which uses about the same amount of power as 590 average-size homes, based on information from the college.

The system would be larger than projects being planned in both Amherst and Northampton. The town of Amherst is planning a 3.7-megawatt array atop the newer capped landfill next to its transfer station, while Northampton intends to develop a 3.3-megawatt system on its old landfill off Glendale Road.

Hampshire’s plans are to have the photovoltaics installed on two open areas of the 840-acre campus, said Lawrence Archey, Hampshire’s director of facilities and grounds. The power generated will go into Eversource’s power grid.

“SolarCity and Eversource have been great partners in moving this forward in a timely manner,” Archey said.

One location where the panels will go is an empty field between the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Yiddish Book Center. The other site is unused land on the western edge of the campus along Bay Road.

With the PILOT agreement in place, Archey said the plan is for SolarCity to put up the panels once an interconnection agreement is signed with Eversource. “Things are moving along in an optimistic direction,” Archey said.

The project also needs local permitting approvals, including from the town’s Conservation Commission, Archey said. The Planning Board must also weigh in on the project.

The college noted the involvement of U.S. Congressman James McGovern of Worcester and state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, who participated in meetings with Eversource and SolarCity.

McGovern’s office issued a statement that a meeting between McGovern and Hampshire President Jonathan Lash occurred last spring, and that solar energy is a priority for the congressman.

“Solar power is helping to save Americans millions of dollars every year on their energy bills and I’m proud that Massachusetts schools like Hampshire College are leading the way in clean energy as we build a 21st-century economy,” McGovern said in the statement.

Estimates provided by the college show that the installations will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2,000 tons annually, the equivalent of removing 390 vehicles from roads.

The college assumes that it will purchase solar power at a rate lower than current utility costs through its power purchase agreement with SolarCity, which will be a fixed rate for 20 years. This will mean savings in excess of $340,000 during the first year and up to $10 million over those two decades.

The project is expected to include two, 500-kilowatt hour batteries that can be used during periods of high demand.

Solar arrays meet the goals of the college of making its operations 100 percent climate neutral, which has been advocated by Lash. Hampshire is part of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.

Hampshire’s project will not be the largest on the eastern seaboard, with ones planned or operating including 17.4-megawatt systems at both Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey, according information from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Solar Energy Industry Association.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.